No way out?

One campus religious group has come under fire for using high-pressure tactics against its members - but church leaders say that's not the case

UCLA Daily Bruin/April 8, 1999
By Michelle Navarro

There are many moments when students feel lost, alone and in need of support. It could be because it is their first year at such a large university, or because four midterms are scheduled during one week.

Whatever the situation, everyone has had desperate times. And, it is in those moments when many students will turn to spiritual faith to see them through. But finding the right religious on campus is not always so easy.

One religious organization that students can begin their spiritual journey in is actually being accused of spiritual damage instead. That organization is the International Church of Christ (ICC).

At UCLA, this group is available to students as the Los Angeles Church of Christ (LACC). Since the group established themselves in southern California, stories from former members have surfaced from several neighboring campuses.

When Pierce Watson attended Long Beach City College in October 1993, he thought joining the LACC was his first step into adjusting to campus life.

"I remember feeling alone at school; I was just starting back at the age of 22 and didn't have many friends," Watson recalled. "Early one morning as I was leaving the bookstore, a guy came up to me and started talking to me. I remember him asking me if I went to church and if I would be interested in studying the Bible."

The two exchanged phone numbers and set a time to go to a Bible study later that week.

His beginning reads strikingly similar to countless other stories found on websites, such as "REVEAL," "Awakened," "Resource" and "Triumphing over London Cults," all created by former members of the greater International Church of Christ (ICC) branches.

Pages after pages are written; some even designate chapters because of the overwhelming length of their stories. And the existence of these stories and former member organizations is mainly due to one thing - they all share a common disappointment and unhappiness with the Church's practices, such as its heavy emphasis on evangelism and tithing.

"I began reading over some scriptures on tithing and came to the conclusion that the ICC was teaching it the wrong way. The Bible teaches us to give with our hearts, not out of fear," explained Watson, when talking about his "falling away" from the Church.

"I told (the leaders) that I have nothing against the Church - I just disagree with some of their ideology and control. I told them I would not come back until things change. We parted and that was our last meeting," he said.

Some, on the other hand, had worse experiences with the Church. They go as far as to accuse the Church of being manipulative, calling it a high-pressure group and saying it often causes spiritual and psychological damage to its followers.

"From their perspective they're doing what they're supposed to be doing - that the only way to be a Christian is to be an evangelist," said Rev. Giles Asbury, an Episcopalian chaplain with the University Religious Conference (URC). "But God gives us gifts and talents, and we have to make the most of those gifts and propensities to serve the community and God. If you deny them and lay them down, I have questions about who you're serving."

Because of such reasons and others like those listed in other testimonies, controversy has constantly surrounded the ICC and its local branches.

In fact, according to the executive director of the American Family Foundation, a research center and educational organization that "addresses problems posed by cults and other destructive groups through programs and projects," most questions they receive involve the ICC.

"We don't have specific statistics for a variety of reasons, but it is pretty clear to us that we receive more inquiries about the ICC than any other group," Dr. Michael Langone said.

It was in 1979 that the ICC was founded in Boston by its current leader, Kip McKean. Since then, not only has the ICC been growing on the global scale - a current estimation is set at 138,000 members - but so has the resistance by other groups to its practices.

About 10 years ago, religious ministers at UCLA were contacted by other religious leaders in Boston after they had experienced problems with the group.

"The Episcopalian church goes all across the country and the chaplains keep in touch with each other. I had colleagues in Boston and awhile ago they told me that there was this new organization, the Boston Church of Christ, that was incredibly aggressive and manipulative," Asbury said.

Asbury said his Boston contacts sent him information on the group to warn him.

"Next thing I know, a young man approached me at the URC and said that his group would like to use a room here for their Bible study. They said they were Bible-believing Christians," Asbury said.

When the Reverend found out the group was from Cambridge and was affiliated with the Boston Church of Christ, he didn't allow them to use space in the URC building for their meetings. Asbury said they had to use hotel conference rooms, theatres and sometimes even the Shrine Auditorium in downtown Los Angeles to hold their services.

Since then, Asbury has done research and has counseled students who left the LACC. He has seen students who had a bright, promising future pass up valuable opportunities for the Church. While Asbury doesn't find anything wrong in serving the Lord, he questions those who only see one way to do so.

Another problem that critics have with the Church is their strict rules for members. After being baptized, members are then given a "discipler" who is considered a role model for the new disciple to emulate.

In a research investigation done for Boston University's Danielsen Institute, Dr. Langone cited a few of the major concerns that former members listed in a survey he conducted.

They included recruitment techniques that use love and high-pressure harassment that induce guilt, an authoritarian relationship with leaders where members have "no rights to personal choice or interpretation," and the amount of recruits each member brings as an indicator of a member's level of faith.

One more common controversy is that the ICC tends to estrange members from their family and friends - usually when they are not also members of the Church.

However, LACC member and UCLA student Ricardo Alvarez disagreed with that accusation.

"There was a time in my life when I was going through some rough times because my father had passed away," Alvarez said. "But the Church helped me out. They did whatever they could to help me feel supported."

The ICC has been banned from several other campuses, including Harvard, Boston University, and Smith College. Administrators claimed members were found recruiting door to door in the dorms and in the dining halls, being overly persistent, putting down other faiths, occupying the focus of student members to the point of a decline in their academic performance and estranging them from their families.

"There was a very clear pattern that (the ICC) was following - they would go to a major university, and during the first year establish themselves and then go to another major state university or junior college," Asbury said.

"People see high-pressure groups as psychologically damaged individuals needing the group," he added, "but if you were running an organization whose purpose was to take over the religious world, would you go and recruit the psychologically damaged, walking wounded? No, you would go out and get the best and brightest around."

For the first time since 1991, the LACC is now an officially registered group with the Center for Student Programming at UCLA.

According to the university guidelines, any group of three students, faculty or staff can register as an official campus organization. Removal of a group may occur only if university guidelines, or local, state or federal law is violated.

In an earlier interview with another paper Todd Spath, a leader for the LACC, explained why the LACC chose not to register after 1991.

"To register you have to be a UCLA student, and there was never any need for our leaders to enroll in classes. We never used the campus facilities, so it just didn't make sense," Spath said.

As to why the group decided to register this year Alvarez said they simply wanted to be a part of UCLA once again.

"Honestly I don't know why we registered again, we just wanted to come on campus again, to be more present on campus again," Alvarez said.

While the group is once again a registered organization, Asbury said it hasn't been as active on campus as other chapters are on their respective campuses.

"This group has kept a really low profile at UCLA compared to other campuses. They recruit on campus, but much is done off campus," Asbury said.

This low profile is reflected by the relatively low number of students registered with the LACC - according to Alvarez that number is about 65.

The entire LACC has roughly 11,000 members.

Now that the group is back on campus, perhaps that number will grow, a disturbing thought for Asbury - mainly because of the effects the experience often has on students.

"When people go through something like that they come out without faith," he said. "They lose an incredible amount of people because they've been hurt spiritually. It's a mugging, an ecclesiastical rape. It's a bad thing - it prevents people's spiritual development because it channels it into one avenue."

"But the truth of the matter of is, that groups like this will continue to be successful," Asbury added. "They operate seven days a week, 24 hours a day. They are like rust on iron; they don't stop."

While Asbury and former members may feel this way, Alvarez said the experience has been very helpful.

"It's been great and very positive with a lot of encouragement and support," the four-year member said.

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